What happened to France's joie de vivre?

Dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, but afraid to change, the French await stronger leadership.

The unemployment rate is falling. Nine out of 10 teenagers tell pollsters that they are happy in home and at school. France is the world's fifth-largest economy, with one of Europe's biggest public sectors, where jobs are essentially guaranteed for life.

And at this very moment, millions of French families are at the seaside or in country homes enjoying their five weeks of paid vacation after working a 35-hour workweek the rest of the year.

So why are they so pessimistic about the state of their economy?

The answer, according to many French people, is fear.

"In France we don't believe in growth," wrote Jean-François Deniau, a member of the prestigious Academie Française, in the newspaper Le Figaro this week. "In the opinion polls the so-called market economy is rejected by two-thirds of the population, which dreams of closing the borders and splitting up the cake of work, employment guaranteed. It's fear."

President Jacques Chirac, now in the last year of his presidency, rails often against what he calls the "declinologues" of his country, using a word that does not appear in dictionaries but is immediately understood. France is strong, he has said, because France is, after all, France.

But the past year has seen blow after blow to the French self-image, analyzed around dinner tables and exposed in weekly opinion polls.

To the surprise of the ruling classes, the French in May 2005 roundly rejected the European constitution that the right-wing government and most of the opposition Socialists had supported. Then came three weeks of autumn rioting by ghetto youths whose random violence exposed a deep undercurrent of anger and alienation.

The constant backbiting within the government of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and his drawn-out battle to save his jobs plan in the face of demonstrations by millions of students have left him so weakened that many commentators consider him a political cipher.

"There is a political malaise and it will probably continue until the presidential elections are finished next year," says Michel Wieviorka, a prominent Paris sociologist.

"Until then, you'll see more of this 'declinism,' this sense that nothing is going right and that everything is falling apart."

There is a long tradition here of looking to the state to solve problems and exercise control. So long as the state, embodied by the government, is perceived as weak and in disarray, Mr. Wieviorka says, the French will feel uneasy.

"Once there's a team in power," he adds, "there will be a feeling of security."

Until then, France can probably expect a continuing onslaught of books by pundits and intellectuals like those that fill the bookstores now.

The titles tell the story: "The Tragedy of the President," "The French Illness," "Goodbye to a France that is Disappearing," and "New World, Old France."

Perhaps most exaggerated was the writer Maurice G. Dantec's judgment in the newspaper Liberation two years ago: "France," he said, "is like a piano suspended by a clothesline from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center."

If facts were at play, the pessimism would seem misplaced.

Despite the French distaste for globalization, French businesses such as Renault and L'Oreal appear to have embraced it, plunging aggressively into the world economy.

But even as France changes its relationship to the outside world, it is also changing in relation to itself, observers like Wieviorka say.

"The French sense of nationalism remains strong even if it's less vibrant than in the past. There is pride in the success, in the history, of the nation," he says.

But he also points out that the state's recent recognition of the darker side of its history, such as its role in the slave trade as well as the deportation and humiliation of Jews in World War II, has "created pressure for the nation to recognize that its history is not as positive as was thought."

Nor should it be forgotten that the French often choose the negative as a reflex.

"To be pessimistic is the French character," says Nicolas Ducrot, a retired book editor living in Brittany.

"They will always say "I know" even when they don't know what they are being asked about. This is the way they announce their pessimistic state of mind.

"But don't forget: France also has one of the highest birthrates in Europe. That says something else."

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